February 22 – An interview with Christina Engela by Steven Byrd of “Byrd is the Word” for his column “Expert of the Week” .
Christina Engela, author
What is your professional background?
I have worked in a military environment since January 1992, shortly after finishing high school – first as a soldier, and since 2009 as a civilian employee. I qualified and worked as a computer technician in 1999 and worked in an IT department as a LAN administrator between 2000 and 2004, while also running a private IT business on the side. I also gained national qualifications in IT security in the meantime. From 2004 I’ve been training people in acquiring basic computer skills, a job requiring a lot of patience! I’ve lectured at Damelin College.
In activism, between 2009 and 2011 I was Director of the Eastern Cape Gay & Lesbian Association (ECGLA) and, simultaneously, of the SA Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (SAGLAAD) of which I am still a member. Currently I’m a Board Member of OUTology! and on the executive committee of the SA Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA). I lectured on sexual orientation and gender identity at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University between 2009 and 2014.
I’ve published 12 books of my own and one so far as an editor, with several more in various stages of completion. I’m a partner in LightBearer Publishing, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
What sparked your interest in writing?
I’ve been eager to write stories since I was old enough to grasp a fat wax crayon! I could say it was growing up around my dad Theo Engela, who was a writer – always writing in a note book or typing his stories on an old portable typewriter, and that inspired me at an early age! My mother Yvonne was also extremely gifted in languages, and although her home language was Afrikaans, her English was extremely good. She wrote poetry in both languages to an equal standard.
What do you like most about being an author?
Being able to create worlds… and to sometimes destroy them. Seriously. It’s nice to be able to tell stories that can change people, and through them, the world they live in. Terry Pratchett – one of my writing heroes – said “Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself!” and this is very true!
How do you, “get in the zone,” when you are writing?
The old saying ‘writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration’ is exactly right! The important thing is to be excited about the material I’m working on, and then it just starts to flow through me. Sometimes my stories pretty much write themselves and I feel like a kind of conduit channeling my characters and the events they live into the document! Often something funny will come out, and I will be in stitches at my PC! The more fun I have writing, the more I want to write.
What is the most common mistake you have seen others make when it comes to communicating in the written form?
Assuming and taking for granted that they are as talented as others think they are. Then they are writing for an imaginary preconceived audience and not for themselves, and that’s when things start to go wrong. If it sounds right to the writer, and makes the writer happy or even laugh out loud, then that’s the way to go because there’s less pressure – less performance anxiety as it were. A writer should have good grammar and spelling for sure – but they should also be more concerned with telling their story, and leave the grammar and spelling for the editor to sort out! That’s what I tell writers who send me material for editing, which I occasionally do on the side as well.
What books would you recommend for improving one’s writing skills?
A dictionary is always useful, and there’s a book called ‘The Student’s Companion’ which I’ve been using since high school – full of antonyms, synonyms, idioms etc.
What else have you found to be useful for your art?
I’ve found that everyday life experiences enrich my general knowledge as a writer, giving me more material to draw on. Humor is also a great boon, since it can liven up what would otherwise be either too plain or boring – and I fear I have something of a warped sense of humor!
How are you leveraging social media to promote your books?
For the most part things went very slowly. Between 2007 and 2014 I hardly had any sales and not understanding social media marketing myself, I basically gave up on trying to market my books. At that time I was also rather distracted from my writing by social issues, activism etc. Living in South Africa, the currency exchange rate has always been an obstacle to me in terms of paying for foreign services – right now for example, the ZAR-USD is at something like R13 to $1! Even if some company in the States were to charge something like $500 for a marketing campaign, it would still cost me around thirteen times that in local currency! This obviously will not do!
Between 2014 and 2016 I was with a traditional publisher, but I was very surprised that they did very little if any actual marketing for their authors. In fact, I was told to ‘do it yourself’ and ‘that’s how the industry works these days’!
In May of last year, I went back to indie publishing, and took matters into my own hands. My girlfriend and P.A. Wendy K. Gloss runs DarkLady Marketing – a small local social media marketing company. They share all my posts on my author website christinaengela.com on Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Goodreads and other social sites, and to various media bodies and so forth. I’ve had several media interviews as a result, and my public visibility has increased dramatically in just the past year – and my sales have started to creep up too!
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a writer?
It’s very difficult to be a writer in South Africa. You need to be tough, determined and thick skinned. The whole publishing industry here appears to be set against writers.
It’s nigh on impossible to find a publisher willing to accept let alone read your manuscript firstly, and secondly, finding an agent is even harder – they must be so busy they don’t even have time to reply to emails from authors looking for an agent. The market here (they say) is small, and so they limit the number of new books being produced locally – and a significant portion of that is religious material – and the less I say about that, perhaps the better.
I’ve been trying to get published by a South African publisher since I was in my last year of high school – which is now almost 30 years ago! If you bear this inordinate amount of time in mind, it’s quite rewarding that in 2016 I finally got a short story accepted by a local publisher in one of their anthologies, and got paid for it! That said, you can’t sit still and wait for a local publisher to answer your emails, or to fly you to New York on a private jet to make you their new featured author. These days, you have to be capable of doing it all on your own.
The only route then, is for a writer to go the independent – or ‘indie’ route – and in South Africa all the big houses (such as Penguin) have what they call ‘vanity presses’ on the side where they charge aspiring writers varying amounts to publish their first novel. I remember back in 2005, one of them wanted to hit me R97,000.00 just for ONE of my books – and at the time, I had five waiting to be published! Business must be hard, because last year, one company offered to publish one of my titles for something around R20,000.00 – with 1000 hard copies sent to me in boxes that I would be left to market by myself! NO THANK YOU!
My books are currently available internationally via distribution channels such as Amazon, Nook, Barnes & Nobel, iTunes, Lybrary, Lulu, Kobo – and even a few I don’t even know about – and yes, even in South Africa, you can find and order them online – but you still can’t walk into a CNA or an Exclusive Books to flip through the pages of a copy on a shelf.
This dynamic also makes it harder for a writer to get reviews from a reviewer. Perhaps I should have said ‘impossible’. Magazines and newspapers that do book reviews expect an author to send them a paperback copy of each book they review – to keep! This can work out quite expensive, if you consider the Rand-USD exchange rate! Otherwise, don’t expect them to read and review an ebook copy – even one sent to them for free!
So then, to sum up – the writer must also be a publisher, a graphic designer, an editor, a layout operator and formatter, and on top of all that, a shrewd marketer and promoter as well! Talent and computer skills are a big plus, if you have them.
Lastly, writers tend to say they write for the love of it – for the art – and that’s true, but one publishes for an extra income – perhaps to a degree for the fame as well – or to reach people and to change the world – and what is the point of writing 200 books if nobody reads them, or talks about them – because nobody knows they exist, or if they just read them for free?
Write for the LOVE of it. PUBLISH for the rest.
Learn more about South Africa’s best science fiction writer at The Crow Bar!
Check out The GALAXii Series Book 1 – Blachart
Meet Christina’s girlfriend, Wendy Keran Gloss!